Back in the day, my son would hole up in his room with his buddies, their baseball cards and the latest Beckett Baseball Card Monthly. Poring over the price lists, their eyes gleamed with excitement at the prospect that these cardboard collectibles would someday pay off big.
I had no idea I was witnessing the crest of the baseball card craze. When their favorite card store, the Ninth Inning in St. Paul's Highland Park, later closed, I didn't recognize the larger forces behind it.
Now the bigger story has been brought into fascinating focus in "Mint Condition," the tale of the rise and fall of baseball card collecting, of innocence lost and abiding hope.
Journalist David Jamieson traces the baseball card's evolution from a tobacco company promotion to a prize for big-money investors. Along the way it became a bad investment for my son, for Jamieson and for the millions of others who bought billions of cards in the '90s.
If this were just a business story, it would be compelling. We learn that business interests have always trumped baseball card collectors -- and for a while even baseball players. We meet tough-talking auctioneers and see how card "graders" decide a card's value, and how card "doctors" inflate that value.
But Jamieson does better than that. He tells the tales of the real players of the baseball card biz, the ones not in uniform.
We meet the bubble-gum bosses who were cutthroat competitors, not collectors. And Sy Berger, the Topps executive who is a big reason why the Mickey Mantle rookie card is so scarce today. And Michael Gidwitz, who sold the coveted T206 Honus Wagner card for six figures.
Larger-than-life characters share space with Jefferson Burdick, an arthritic loner who is probably the father of baseball card collecting. As a kid he gathered cards dating to 1909. In ailing adulthood, he could have parlayed some of those cards into a comfortable life. Instead, living in pain and poverty, he invented the card numbering system and pressed his historic collection on a surprised curator at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
For much of his book, Jamieson seems to be saying that greed and grown-ups have spoiled card collecting forever. But there's comfort in knowing that the cards have always appealed to baseball lovers and bottom-line business types for their own reasons.
Even Jamieson holds out hope that they will find their proper place again in American kids' lives -- even if it's only in their closets.
Maureen McCarthy is a senior metro editor at the Star Tribune.